” . . . to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared .” Mark 10:40
There is a deep sense of fatalism in the minds of many people, ‘que sera sera’; an unthinking belief that what will be will be and that there is nothing that we can do to change things. How many times have we heard people say things like, ‘when your number is up’ or talk as though our lives are controlled by forces we can neither see nor control—whether it’s through things like astrology, or other more poorly defined ideas, that there is something out there that is shaping the way things turn out?
We need gently to ask if they really think that; if they really think that the way their lives turn out is really beyond their control. Because, if they think it is, then the question arises whether they think it makes any difference if they live a right or a wrong life; if it is only going to turn out one way, then what difference does it make how they behave? If your number is up, if you can’t do anything to shape your own destiny, then what difference does it make whether you live an upright and righteous life or spend your days living as a rogue?
It is not just about one’s own view of one’s own life, if a person believes in fate, presumably they believe that whatever happens to other people is also something that can’t be controlled—that if they die cruel and tragic deaths, then it must be because their number is up. When people say they believe in fate, they need to be asked if they really think the awful things that happen in the world, including the deaths of children, are simply a question of what will be will be.
Christians do not believe in fate—we believe in predestination, that God is working his purpose out, but we also believe in freewill, that we can make choices about how our life turns out.
Someone who believes in fate might argue that they don’t see much difference between predestination and their much more straightforward belief that when your number is up, your number is up.
Jesus talks of God’s foreknowledge of things. Look at what he says to James and John in the Gospel reading, “to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
Predestination is a step further than foreknowledge, it suggests that there is a deliberateness in God’s plans, that foreknowing is just one part of God working out his purpose. Saint Paul writes in Romans 8:29-30, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified”.
There is no mistaking Paul’s belief that God doesn’t just know what is going to happen, but that there is a plan underlying the way things turn out. The argument is taken up again in Ephesians 1:5, “In love, he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will, “ and in Ephesians 1:11, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”.
The God whom we meet in the New Testament is a God who is working his purpose out in all that happens, whether it’s in who sits where in heaven, or in the lives of the individual believers.
Predestination has been part of our faith. If it was not, we would have to ask, if God does not know the future, then how can he be God? If we did not believe God to be in control of things, then he would not be much of a God. But if everything is predestined, then, for the person concerned, how is that any different from fate?
How do we deal with Jesus’ words, “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared,” and at the same time say that although God has foreknowledge, there is also freewill in the world, and that evil is not part of God’s plan? Can you have a world where predestination and freewill go together?
When we looked at the doctrine of predestination, we found help from an unlikely source, from the work of Hermann Minkowkski, Albert Einstein’s mathematics professor, Minkowski saw space and time as being not separate, but being one thing. He talked of them as being space-time, according to which says science writer Marcus Chown, “the Universe can be thought of as a vast map. All events—from the creation of the Universe in the Big Bang to your birth at a particular time and place on earth—are laid out on it, each with its unique space-time location . . . But the map picture poses a problem. If everything is laid out—preordained almost—there is no room for concepts of past, present and future”. Einstein, Minkowski’s most famous pupil, that Swiss post office clerk who became know for the brilliance of his scientific thought and uniqueness of his hairstyle, wrote, “For us physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion”.
What Einstein seems to say is that space and time were complete in a single moment. If one was able to look at the Universe from the outside, one would see not only the whole of space, but also the whole of time, for the two are one.
For a Christian, the idea of space-time would seem to suggest that God, looking from the outside, would in a single moment, see the whole of creation and the whole history of that creation. God has foreknowledge because he looks at a map where everything has happened in an instant; seeing the whole map, he knows the destiny of each person.
This is much more than an abstract academic point because it means that there is freewill; it means that life in that space-time map is what we make it, that and that there is no such thing as fate.
No-one’s number is ever up. The Bible tells us that we have free will, Saint John Chapter 3 is about individual choices. Jesus tells people in John Chapter 6 that they are free to choose. When people talk about fate, it’s important to realize that Jesus would have rejected the idea that whatever happened to you was going to happen and that you had no power to make any difference. Next time someone talks in such terms ask them if they think we have no freedom, for fate is the contradiction of any idea of freedom. And if you are feeling very adventurous, tell them that Einstein doesn’t agree with fate, that he says that past, present and future happen all at once, so there can’t be such a thing as fate.
Fate or freedom? “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared,” says Jesus. Seeing the whole map of space-time, God knows who will occupy those places. We who are still within that map have freedom of choice.
Freedom means we have no excuses about the choices we make; that nothing can be ascribed to fate.